What are three of your favourite countries, and why?
Bosnia and Herzegovina
A country that was at war less than 20 years ago and one that I thought would never be visited with its incredible scenery, rich history and people. From the moment you arrive, you are aware of the Islamic and Christian influences living side by side with the call to prayer sounding from the minarets and the church bells ringing only meters away. You quickly realise how far the Turks had travelled.
Mostar, with its tiny streets seeping with traditional wares and graveyards for those that lost their lives, bullet holes and mortar damage, remains as a stark reminder of what had come before. The Stari Most, which had been destroyed in 1993, takes centre stage once more as young men tap the tourist’s pockets to incite them to jump from it whilst the minaret of the Koski Mehmed Pasha Mosque allows you to see the city from a great height.
The capital of Sarajevo brims with even more history as we searched for the Sarajevo roses, which mark where bullets and mortar shells had hit along Sniper Alley and stood at the Latin bridge which became famous in 1914 when it was the site of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria that sparked World War I.
Maybe the Tunnel of Salvation gave most food for thought as it shared its grim history of being built and the difference it made to the people of the city in getting supplies and people in and out in comparative safety. Everywhere we went, the people smiled and took time to speak about their lives now and how it had been for them during the atrocities, a brave nation with so much to see and absorb.
A huge tourist destination for many Brits, sadly they only get to see such a small area of this huge country. I was lucky to spend over six years using it as my base country being able to see so much more. From the splendour of Ephesus and its library, the country abounds with Roman cites, Byzantine and Ottoman history and people that will do anything to help. The heads of Nemrut stay vividly in my mind, as does the ongoing discoveries at Gobekli Tepe, which is thought to be the oldest temple in the world. The ancient city of Hattusa, dating from the third millennium BC, was fascinating, as were the tunnel cities of Derinkuyu and the caves of Cappadocia, which shared an insight into how the Turks had lived at points throughout history.
Istanbul was a highlight where east meets west in its multi-cultural centre where mosques are at every corner and queues to the incredible Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque almost put you off visiting, do, they are worth it. The Basilica Cistern, built in the 6th century, is dimly lit but a marvel to behold as you creep through the underground to view it. The Grand Bazar is a maze of shops and passages where the Turks take time to sip their incredibly rich coffee. For me, the city gave me the best museum in the world, The Rami Koch; once a private collection now it can be shared, and there is so much to share from its car collection to its miniature planes. There is something for everyone.
The most heavily bombed country in the world that has never been in a war, the history of Laos is one of sorrow and splendour as they continue to clear mines and reclaim land for their people. Travel restrictions at the time meant we could only stay in its wonderous capital, Vientiane, with a Wat on every corner; it felt strangely British in many ways with the food options available and English being spoken.
Although there are lots to see, most of the sites were accessible by foot; the eye-watering gold of Pha That Luang was incredible, as was Patuxai, a nod to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and the French who colonised the city. For me, there were two places that stood out, Buddha Park with its amazing statues and serenity and the COPE centre. This museum is part of a project to rehabilitate and to provide prosthetic limbs to those that have been affected by the land mines and unexploded bombs. It also raises funds to continue the work of clearing the thousands of acres of land still embedded with live bombs and mines. A country I need to go back to and experience even more.
What are three of your favourite travel moments, and why?
Possibly the Eighth Wonder of the World
It was a hard walk up and one that I had no idea what to expect once I reached the summit as my travel partner had wanted it to be a surprise. As I paused for the third time to gulp oxygen at the higher altitude, I just hoped that it would be worth it. A donkey overtook us as we went higher and higher. Finally, at the top, my breathing still erratic, I could only stare in wonder at the Heads of Nemrut.
Standing 50 feet high are the statues that represent the mausoleum of Antiochus I. It failed to take away the incredible feat of the building that must have taken place. The views across Turkey and the Taurus mountains were second to none, but my eyes keep being drawn back to the figures themselves; how on earth had they got there, and why were they not one of the wonders of the world, I asked myself.
When Cello’s Rip the Place to Pieces
I love exploring a new city, and Zagreb had already yielded some incredible architecture and places to see, we had, however, got slightly lost and found ourselves at the edge of a small park which held a large stage, people were gathering on blankets, and picnics were appearing from bags, unsure as to what might happen, we decided to join the steadily growing throngs and quickly grabbed some drinks and snacks from a local shop before finding a place on the grass. The tannoy crackled into life, and the sound of instruments being tuned reached our ears; happy to go with the flow, we sat back to listen and enjoy.
The compare appeared on stage welcoming one and all to the free concert to be given by the Two Cello’s, I leapt up in excitement while my companion wondered why I had started to babble about the classic rock tunes of ACDC and the like whilst bouncing up and down as the two incredible musicians walked onto the stage. Two and a half hours later, with sweat running down us, all the set finished to huge rounds of applause, every single person there had enjoyed it immensely, and although we had missed all of the transport links back to our digs, we were happy to walk the five miles back. If you haven’t come across these boys, check them out on YouTube, really you need to.
Watching Bodies Burn
We had arrived in Varanasi in the dead of night after an eight-hour delay on our sleeper train, creeping along its narrow lanes to find our accommodation had taken hours, and I have to admit to being a tad grumpy by the time we had dumped our backpacks and found some breakfast. But who can remain grumpy in such an incredible place, as we walked along with the Ganges meeting orange-robed monks who performed all manner of aerobics and watching the Hindu’s washing clothes, bathing and enjoying the scared water. It might be strange to say that a favourite place involves watching bodies being burnt, but it was fascinating and hard to move away from. The care that was given by the families as one of their loved ones were bathed in the water before being placed on a pile of carefully chosen wood with more being placed on top.
The lighting of the funeral pyre and the respect shown for the deceased as the men of the family waited for only ashes to remain was perhaps grisly but comforting. For me, it was the irony that there were three levels to the burning ghats, the higher level for those of power and wealth whilst the poor were consigned to the level nearest the spiritual waters, the idea that money took you higher but that poverty meant you were much closer to the sacred Ganges for your last time on earth when everyone becomes equal regardless of status.
What are three of your worst travel moments, and why?
Down and Out in Bangalore
The hammering on the door at 5:30 AM woke us instantly, and as I opened it with bleary eyes, I was confronted by the hotel manager, telling us it was time to check out. What! We had booked the room until 8 pm. I argued and produced our online booking but to no avail, and as the heavies arrived, we had no choice but to leave (I did pursue this at a later time and received my money back and a letter of apology), with dawn breaking and our backpacks weighing us down we headed for the train stations left luggage with a rapidly forming plan for the day. With the packs stored and breakfast consumed, you can’t beat a samosa for brekkie; we took a rickshaw to Bangalore Palace, which on google images looked remarkably like Windsor Castle.
As in many places in India, there was a local price and a tourist price which meant bringing the bank card out, no cards, they said, cash only. I looked in my purse to find very few rupees, so the palace would have to wait whilst we sourced an atm. It’s amazing how many miles we had walked in India to find cash machines, and this was no different. Cash point one, two, and three failed to respond to my frantic tapping, as did numbers six, seven and eight, at which point we found a bench and sat close to tears trying to decide what to do with no funds. Three miles later, we found an ATM that we had used a few days ago and our joy couldn’t be contained as money flowed out of its depths and into my hands.
With stress levels high, we decided on beer and food before doing anything else, so having followed a cow into a small dark bar, we sat down. Being the only white woman was causing a stir, and within minutes, a number of young men had approached my daughter for selfies. A very common occurrence across India. With a small glint in her eye, she agreed for a fee. One thousand two hundred rupees later and 12 selfies provided, we made our exit and headed back to the palace with a full purse and full bellies.
The Quickest Way to Enter a Country
We had spent a couple of weeks in Bangladesh, and as the last night’s treat, we had pushed the boat out to a good quality restaurant for our meal, the waiters were suited and booted, and we had enjoyed the food provided. Our arrival at the airport the following morning saw my daughter constantly running to the bathroom with a nasty case of food poisoning, not what anyone wants. The short flight from Dhaka to Kathmandu seemed like a lifetime as she became worse and worse, and the stewards advised me that medical staff would be waiting at arrivals to help us.
Having half dragged and half carried her from the plane through to the visa entry machines, she proceeded to collapse; a doctor and ambulance crew raced through the barriers, and the immigration booth just stamped our passports to get us through, no visa and no wait. Twelve hours later saw us finally arrive at our lodgings with a rehydrated daughter who had been dosed to the gills with tablets to stop the food poisoning in its tracks by a police car, quite an entrance to a country and luckily within a couple of days all was well, and our adventures could continue.
When you can’t tell the time
There is nothing worse than arriving at an airport to find your plane is delayed until you turn up to find that you have arrived exactly 24 hours too late for check-in and have missed the plane completely. Being dyslexic, I have problems with reading the 24-hour system and had completely messed up in this instance. It was the first time I was flying back to the UK following the death of my partner, and my vulnerability showed as realisation dawned, and I sat down and cried. With no one in the airport, I eventually found two security men in their office and explained my plight.
They couldn’t have been more helpful, kind and concerned, and two hours later and a heavy clout on the credit card, I had been put onto a flight that would take me to Holland with a layover of 9 hours before taking the connecting flight to the UK. Now I don’t mind airports; in fact, I find them fascinating and knew that I could fill the time with people watching, reading and wandering around. I had decided to drop my bags at left luggage and head to the nearest town of Groningen in Holland to make the most of the situation.
My first warning that this plan might not work was being led onto a prop plane instead of the usual airbus; after a short and bumpy flight, my second warning was the lack of conveyor belt and the fact that our cases were bought to us by hand from the plane. I looked around for the left luggage area and walked a hundred metres or so to the end of the airport before realising that this facility didn’t exist. I watched the locals climbing onto the local bus and considered following them, but the thought of dragging a supersize case weighing in excess of 30kgs around didn’t appeal. OK, so I’ll go and find somewhere in the airport to eat and settle in for a day of reading and blogging, easy I thought.
The canteen had four tables and two items of food on sale, a bacon and cheese sandwich, I don’t eat meat, and a pain au raisin; having made my selection, I settled onto a table and got my trusty kindle out to find that I only had 20% battery left which wouldn’t last the number of hours required, with nowhere to charge it and my laptop in a similar situation I decided to take in my surroundings. Three gulls on the runway and no customers or planes to look at, I wondered how long it might take to count the grains of sugar in my sachet as it looked as though that would be my main occupation for the day.
What are three of your best travel tips?
Pack and then Half it
Going from family holidays with large suitcases to a backpack was a huge learning curve in what you might actually need. I realised very early on that the less packed, the easy life became. So instead of the six tops you think you need, go for 3, be prepared to layer clothing to keep warm.
You really only need a good pair of walking shoes/boots and a pair of flip flops. Jeans are heavy and bulky, so wear them to travel in, buy two in one shampoo and conditioner, so you’re carrying less, one hoodie, one fleece and a waterproof is all that is needed, and if you wear them on the journey, they don’t take up any room. The only thing I take a lot of is underwear! So layout everything you think you will need and then take half of it away, much easier to carry and more room for souvenirs to bring home.
Always double-check opening times, local festivals that may affect openings and national holidays for the country you are in. So much disappointment can be saved by something so simple, I really should follow my own advice.
Planning saves you money
I’ve always been a planner and love nothing more than starting on a huge plan of travel for my next trip. Many people I have met go with the flow, and I’m happy to do that to a degree; however, general planning saves time and money. I usually book accommodation ahead of time, which means I know I have a bed for the night and that I won’t be paying a premium rate for turning up on speck. Prebooking flights will make it much much cheaper than taking pot luck at the airport.
Book onward local transport on arrival at your destination to avoid paying full prices or not getting a ticket at all. Use buses instead of trains, India being an exception to this, plus you get to see more of the country you are travelling in. Always make a record of the exchange rate from your home country, so you know what you’re paying in different places, which makes it easier to know when you are being overcharged. Plan to go to local eateries, not the touristy ones; you get better food, meet incredible people and save a small fortune.
Do you have any favourite hotels or restaurants?
Alice’s Restaurant – Istanbul
The Royal Bar and Restaurant – Alanya, Turkey
The Hostelcrawl (a delight for Harry Potter fans) – Udaipur
Do you have any favourite cities?
Amsterdam, Bangkok, Budva, Yangon, and Zagreb.
What are some of the worst places you’ve stayed?
Chennai and Kotor.
If you can only choose one:
Favourite airline: Thai Airlines.
Favourite airport: Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam.
Favourite city: Zagreb.
Favourite island: Malta.
Favourite people: Turkish.
Favourite small town: Bouton-on-the-Water, Cotswolds.
Favourite travel book: Anything by Jason Smart.
Favourite travel movie: Not a movie but a set of TV series: Long Way Down, Long Way Round and Long Way Up.
Favourite travel website: Travelblog.org
Jo’s own website is Traveltalesofawoollymammoth.com.